Monday, 21 January 2019

CD Reviews - January 2019

The vocal ensemble Fieri Consort formed in 2012, and two years later became part of Brighton Early Music Festival’s programme for young artists, BREMF Live! Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, and won the Cambridge Award at the 2017 York Early Music Festival. They gave a stunning performance at this year’s BREMF, as well as several of the 8-strong line-up performing as soloists in the BREMF operas and other festival concerts.  For their second disc, The Unknown Traveller, they have recorded a selection of works from Musica Transalpina, an anthology of mostly Italian madrigals set to English texts, thus fuelling the popularity of madrigals in England at the time.  The anthology was published in 1588 by Nicholas Yonge, Lewes-born singer and publisher (see concert listings for the Lewes chamber music series named after him), although the identity of the translator is unknown (hence the disc’s title).  There are works by Ferrabosco, Palestrina, Lasso, de Monte, Byrd and others.  The Fieri Consort sing one to a part, varying the forces from four to six voices, and their ensemble is always clear and blended, yet the English texts are brought to the fore with precision and smooth articulation.  Conversi’s ‘Zephirus brings the time…’ is given beautifully smooth lines, whereas Ferrabosco’s ‘The nightingale so pleasant…’ has a delightfully swinging delicacy.  They couple this collection with a new work, ‘Short Walk of a Madman’ by Ben Rowarth.  Rowarth uses texts by e e cummings, as well as drawing on Dante’s Divine Comedy for structure for its four movements, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, and then Paradise Revisited.  The theme of loneliness is also explored, in particular by often isolating the different eight voices in separate tonalities at the same time.  This creates huge challenges for the singers, but the Fieri Consort are totally convincing and highly impressive in their command of these demands.  The second movement in particular has a real sense of torment and madness, with its repetitive, circling motions, and the intertwined tonalities of the third and fourth movements are hypnotic and very effective.  Whilst I’m not sure the placing of this work alongside the Musica Transalpina repertoire entirely works, it certainly demonstrates the range of these young singers’ expertise, and Rowarth’s work definitely has a striking impact.  I look forward to hearing a lot more from these highly talented singers. 

The New Ross Piano Festival has been taking place in New Ross in the south east of Ireland since 2006.  Over the course of three years from 2014-16, the festival commissioned and premiered fifteen new pieces by different Irish composers in response to the Ros Tapestry, a fifteen-panel tapestry begun in 1998 that traces the history of the Norman invasion of Ireland.  They have now been put together on two discs, forming the Ros Tapestry Suite, performed by 12 different pianists, including the festival’s Artistic Director Finghin Collins, as well as Nicholas Angelich, Piers Lane, Lise de la Salle and Cédric Tiberghien.  Given the nature of the source material, a number of the pieces evoke battle scenes, although it is fascinating to hear the different compositional responses to this. So Sebastian Adams’ ‘The Siege of Wexford’ makes use of violent, throbbing chords, particularly exploiting the piano’s lowest registered, with a hammering conclusion.  Gerry Murphy’s ‘Battles in the Kingdom of Ossory’ is warlike too, but much more ominous, with its repeated ‘Jaws’-like bass. There’s a galloping hunt in Andrew Hamilton’s ‘Hunt in the Forest of Ros’, a wild and watery storm in Deirdre Gribbin’s ‘Ex Voto Tintern Abbey’, and a striking build from jazzy evening chords to a tolling warning in Eric Sweeney’s Evening: The Lighthouse at Hook Head’.  Rhythmic energy and drive abound in John Kinsella’s ‘The Celts…’, whereas the rhythms in Elaine Agnew’s ‘The Abduction of Dervorgilla’ are unsettlingly jerky, even jumpy.  All bar one of the tracks were recorded live, and the sound is consistently clear and full-bodied.  The pianists deserve as much praise as the composers here – these are challenging pieces, and all concerned give highly convincing, often intense, and impressively virtuosic performances.  Cédric Tiberghien and Piers Lane merit particular mention for their characterisation, and in Lanes’ case, precise articulation of the melodic fragments within rich textures of harmonic clusters.  And Finghin Collins, who performs four of the pieces here, gets to demonstrate the greatest variety and command of technique.  Overall, this is a fascinating collection, demonstrating an impressive breadth of contemporary composition for the piano.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January 2019)

Friday, 11 January 2019

Melnikov and Staier bring intimacy and fresh edge to Schubert

Alexander Melnikov, © Marco Borggreve

Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Andreas Staier (piano)

Thursday 10 January, 2019

Wigmore Hall, London


March in B minor D819 No.3
Four Ländler D814
Polonaise in D minor D824 No. 1
Marche caractéristiques in C D968b No. 1
Andantino varié in B minor D823 No. 2
Rondo in A D951
Variations on an original theme in A flat major D813
Fantasie in F minor B940

Andreas Staier, © Josep Molina
'Staier’s first variation triplet decoration was fluid and subtle, whilst Melnikov’s running secondo part in the second variation was equally agile'.

'Staier and Melnikov held this moment perfectly, before releasing us into the trotting rhythms of the final variation'.

'Staier and Melnikov held our collective breathes'.

'Staier and Melnikov’s tautly sensitive interpretation made for a very special moment of music making'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 21 December 2018

CD Reviews - December 2018

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are joined by James Ehnes for a taut performance of William Walton’s (1902-1983) Viola Concerto.  The Concerto was written for the pioneering viola player, Lionel Tertis in 1928/29, but Tertis rejected the work as too modern, so it was taken up for the first performance by Paul Hindemith.  Tertis later realised his mistake, and performed the work frequently, helping it become established as a major work in the instrument’s repertoire. Walton combines bluesy harmonies and jazzy rhythms in the opening movement with beautiful lyrical lines for the soloist, relished here by Ehnes, as well as typically spicy writing for woodwind and brass.  The central Scherzo has busy, quirky rhythms in a kind of off-kilter, swirling dance, and the finale launches with a humorous, bouncy melody from the bassoon, soon picked up by the soloist.  Towards the end of the movement, the solo viola is accompanied by a repeated bass clarinet pattern, and Ehnes is particularly sweet-toned here.  Gardner and the BBCSO are tight throughout, and Gardner manages particularly well the balance of Walton’s often weighty orchestration against the mellow solo instrument.  The Concerto is joined here by two much later works, firstly a late transcription by Walton (assisted by Malcolm Arnold) of his own String Quartet No. 2, as a Sonata for String Orchestra.  Walton revised some material, particularly in the first movement, and he frequently sets material for a solo quartet against full string orchestra, in the manner of a concerto grosso.  The first movement contains a rather Elgarian fugue, and the Presto which follows is fraught and somewhat impatient in mood, and Gardner brings out the detail whilst achieving an appropriately pushed tempo. The violas and cellos are particularly dark and brooding in the slow movement, and the finale has excitingly driven rhythmic energy throughout.  The disc the concludes with Walton’s Partita for Orchestra, a more overtly celebratory work, with its wallop of an opening for full orchestra, with a lot going on and some truly virtuosic demands placed on the orchestral players.  The central Pastorale Siciliana is more subdued, with a lilting, meandering duet for viola and oboe, followed by lots of solo writing for various instruments, and the playful Giga Burlesca is great fun. Gardner and the BBCSO are on top form, and the three pieces here, whilst all very much ‘Waltonian’ in their orchestral writing, show off well the often-underestimated range of mood in his work, from darkly brooding, through liltingly lyrical, to full-on extrovert fun.  

Walton, W. 2018. Violin Concerto, Partita for Orchestra, Sonata for String Orchestra. James Ehnes, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5210.

The London based amateur chamber choir Lumen, directed by Benjamin Thiele-Long, has released a fascinating disc of new unaccompanied choral works.  The recording is the result of a great project to create a platform for new composers of sacred and spiritual choral pieces.  Thiele-Long and the choir selected the composers via a successful kickstarter campaign, and as a result, they have recorded brand new pieces by twelve different composers.  The range of styles is impressive, yet all the works would be accessible for most good amateur choirs, so it provides a great opportunity for choirs who are looking for something new.  You can read more about the project and some of the composers on my blog, but the works on offer here range from the simple but effective harmonies of Sam Olivier’s ‘There is no dusk to be’, to the more challenging, surging chromatic lines and jazzy harmonies of Simon Whiteley’s ‘The Way of Life’.  Eastbourne-based composer Clive Whitburn’s ‘Who is my neighbour?’ puts biblical texts from Luke and Matthew up against data on migrant deaths, contrasting the pulsing, chanting statistics with a keening soprano line, somehow adding to the moral challenge through the simplicity of its melody.  And Joanna Gill’s ‘Safe in the arms of He’ is equally moving, in its touchingly intimate setting of a text written by parents on the death of their son from cancer.  The thirteen-strong choir show incredible versatility in tackling such a broad range of styles and moods, and despite some occasional tuning issues in a few of the more stretching pieces, they give committed and convincing performances throughout.  Inevitably with a range of new compositions such as this, one will be drawn to some more than others, but this is an impressive display of new choral composition talent, and I hope that other choirs will pick up many of the pieces. Do check out my blog for more on the pieces, with links to videos about the composers and their works.

(Read more about the background to the Lumen de Lumine project here.  And read more about other music by Clive Whitburn here).

Various. 2018. Lumen de Lumine. Lumen Chamber Choir, Benjamin Thiele-Long. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR046.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2018)

Monday, 3 December 2018

O Magnum Mysterium - The Baroque Collective Singers with the Lewes Festival of Song

The Baroque Collective Singers

The Baroque Collective Singers are performing in a Christmas fundraiser concert to support the Lewes Festival of Song at St. Anne’s Church, Lewes on Friday December 14th at 8pm.

John Hancorn

Following their successful festival finale last July, The Baroque Collective Singers are once again conducted by their Director, John Hancorn.  They will be performing 'O Magnum Mysterium', a candlelit, radiant seasonal programme of familiar and unfamiliar music, with some beautiful carols for the audience to join in. The programme includes highly contrasting settings of O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria, Poulenc and Ola Gjeilo.  There will be music by contemporary composers such as James MacMillan, Judith Weir and Ed Hughes, as well as works by Holst, Britten and Tavener.  

Guest cellist Sebastian Comberti and pianist and festival director Nancy Cooley will be playing too.  Tickets are £15 (under 16s £7.50) with proceeds going towards a new piano for the festival. Mulled wine and refreshments by donation. Get tickets here.

Sebastian Comberti
Nancy Cooley

Friday, 30 November 2018

CD Review - November 2018

Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s (b.1980) strength in imaginatively setting words to music shows no sign of slowing. Magic Lantern Tales, which gives her new disc its title, is a setting of poems by Ian McMillan, which were in turn responses to interviews and documentary photography by Ian Beesley.  Beesley was Artist in Residence at a psychiatric hospital, and his interviews with elderly people document stories of love, loss and in particular, the impact of the First World War.  McMillan’s poetry, and Frances-Hoad’s expressive settings, capture the poignancy and intimacy of these tales, as well as their humour and human drama.  Tenor Nicky Spence, who premiered the cycle, sings with full-toned immediacy of communication, from the folk-like idiom, almost troubadour style of the opening ‘Marching through Time’,to the romantically poignant narrative of ‘Lily Maynard’, and the loss of her love in the Somme. Frances-Hoad cranks up the tension here, with ever-richer harmonies, and even gunfire from the piano (played here by Sholto Kynoch) as events take a tragic turn.  Even the bouncy ‘Ballad of Harry Holmes’, with elements of music hall and even drinking song, has moments of pause for bird song effects, but here again, the story telling is key, and Spence is captivating throughout.  The sadness of ‘Mabel Walsh’, with its insistent, pecking piano part under a long, lugubrious lyrical vocal line is followed by the opening song’s return, and throughout the cycle are references and allusions to music associated with the First World War period, such as Butterworth’s ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’, and songs such as ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Pack up your Troubles’.  The Thought Machine sets ten children’s poems by Kate Wakeling, and the contrast of tone could not be more different, yet story-telling remains central.  Soprano Sophie Daneman and baritone Mark Stone, with Kynoch again on piano, share the task of portraying the silvery, ethereal atmosphere of the New Moon, the motoring rhythm of a mysterious Machine (with added egg shakers played by the singers!), and the strange, leaping extremes of voice and piano in the Telescope.  Humour and rollicking fairytales are here too, with great comic timing in Skig the Warrior and Thief, and some fabulously fun word-painting in Rita the Pirate.  Contrasting yet again, in Scenes from Autistic Bedtime, both parent and autistic child are given voice, with Edward Nieland (treble) as the boy and Natalie Raybould (soprano) as the mother, with cello, vibraphone and piano accompaniment.  There’s much repetition of text and musical motifs, and the frailty of the boy’s anxiety, as well as the tiredness and frustration of the mother are expressed skillfully by both singers.  The text (by Stuart Murray, himself a parent of two autistic boys) and Frances-Hoad’s music capture wonderfully the conflict of intimate and at times playful experiences of boy and mother, with moments of clear distress for both, particularly in the last of the three scenes.  Space does not allow me to do justice to the other material here, including two sensuously jazzy and dreamy solo piano miniatures played expressively by Kynoch, the wonderfully sombre Lament sung by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), with low bell tolling on piano from Alisdair Hogarth, and the Britten-esque intoning in the trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano and countertenor (Verity Wingate, Sinéad O’Kelly and Collin Shay, with Hogarth again on piano), Invoke Now the Angels, with its dazzling outburst on the words ‘extraordinary angels’.  The same three singers, this time unaccompanied, deliver a beautiful close blend for A Song Incomplete, Frances-Hoad’s short Aristotle setting, written for her own wedding.  Finally, Love Bytes, for soprano (Wingate), baritone (Philip Smith), vibraphone (Beth Higham-Edwards), cello (Anna Menzies), conducted by George Jackson, is a mini-opera, a modern tale of a virtual romance that is perhaps doomed before it starts.  Frances-Hoad combines elements of almost musical theatre style with imaginative instrumentation, once again showing her knack for authentic communication of contemporary situations and emotions.  A highly impressive collection, striking in its sheer variety, emotional impact and communicative expression.

Hoad, F. 2018. Magic Lantern Tales. Various. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRDC146.

(Edited versions of this review first appeared in GScene, November 2018)

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Lumen de Lumine - New choral music from the Lumen Chamber Choir

Recently I spoke to Benjamin Thiele-Long, Director of the London-based Lumen Chamber Choir, about their innovative project to record a whole disc of new sacred and spiritual choral music.  Thiele-Long spoke about the inspiration that came to him on a visit to Iceland, seeing the Northern Lights for the first time.  He compared his emotional reaction to when he first heard Howell's Collegium Regale, and this led him to think about how to create new opportunities for choral music to move and excite audiences.  In Iceland, he experienced a genuine enthusiasm for new music, and this was something he wanted to encourage back home. 

The idea for a project with the Lumen Chamber Choir was thus formed.  This was in essence to create a platform that composers of choral music wouldn't otherwise have, and to expand the repertoire of new music available to choirs of all abilities.  They decided to launch a crowdfunding initiative, which proved successful, and approached various record labels to support the project.  Thiele-Long says that Convivium Records were immediately supportive of the project, and instrumental in bringing the recording to fruition.

The composers were found through recommendation, friends and some already associated with the choir as singers or former singers, as well as a successful social media campaign - Thiele-Long's 'day job' PR background coming in handy here.  They ended up with a good number of composers interested, and the selection process that followed, including the aim for a balance of styles, and demographic backgrounds, helped them reduce the chosen number of composers down to the final line-up.  The end result is a collection of music from 12 different composers, with a very broad range of styles.  

You will be able to read my review of the final disc here soon, but for now, do have a look at the above videos in which Thiele-Long talks more about this exciting project.  There are also more videos giving background on the composers and their works - I've included a couple of these below.

You can get hold of the disc here.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers

Saturday 17 November, 7.30pm, St George's Church, Brighton
Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers marks the centenary of some women gaining the vote. A specially commissioned new work - ‘Lead On’ - by Lucy Pankhurst, a relative of leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, will be performed and music by a diverse range of women composers, with Caroline Lucas MP as a key speaker.
Artists include soprano Polina Shepherdvocal/instrumental group HEARD Collective, choir Women of Note, guitarist Brian Ashworth, flautist Rebecca Griffiths and pianists Evgenia Startseva and Yuri Paterson-Olenich plus multi-pianist ensemble the Zongora Piano Group and the Appel Trio. 
Featured composers include Norah Blaney, Rebecca Clarke, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Lilian ElkingtonShena Fraser, Augusta Holmès, Ethel Smyth plus present-day composers Litha Efthymiou, Cecilia McDowall and Master of the Queen's Music, Judith Weir.

'Norah Blaney (right) and her partner Gwen Farrar first met in 1917, entertaining troops in a concert party. Gwen played the cello and Norah was a classically trained pianist who had also studied composition at the Royal College of Music. Several of the songs she wrote were published while she was still in her teens and 'Are You There Mr Bear?' is still in print over 100 years later.

Norah and Gwen appeared in the 1921 Royal Command Performance at the London Hippodrome. They went on to star in revues at the Vaudeville, Prince of Wales and Savoy Theatres, becoming household names in 1924 for their recording of 'It Ain't Gonna Rain No More'. They lived together as lovers in a house in the King's Road Chelsea, where they entertained Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Radclyffe Hall, Dolly Wilde (Oscar's niece) and the lesbian action hero Joe Carstairs, to name just a few'.  
(with thanks to Alison Child).

Alison Child is currently writing a biography of Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar, Tell Me I'm Forgiven (with cover design by Andrew Kay) which will be available in the Autumn of 2019.

Book tickets here.